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Doors Open Alberta

Old Strathcona's Challenge

By Juliet Kershaw

How will this model for Main Street deal with the dark side of its popularity?.

Strathcona is a great urban space. It has it all: a large residential population, cafes, shops, people, market, community, heritage buildings, and special events. It's really an ideal community," says David Murray.

An architect and Strathcona resident, Murray remembers the neglect that once characterized this turn-of-the-century neighbourhood, now blessed with a commercial hub focused on a collection of refurbished historic buildings. Its inherent charm ignored until the early1970s, Old Strathcona now looks better than ever. Edmonton's showcase community, Strathcona is also the most happening shopping and entertainment district in town.

Murray was one of a handful who recognized the area's potential and worked to bring it back to life.

"In this historic atmosphere we wanted to make a clean, safe, and a pleasant place to be, where people want to live, businesses want to operate, and both sides thrive. We wanted to bring back the small town feel," says Judy Berghofer, founding member and former president of the foundation.

In fact, the redevelopment of Old Strathcona was so successful it served as a model for Alberta's Main Street program, established to help communities restore a regular heartbeat to their municipal centres.

Strathcona began as a settlement in 1891 and vied for commercial supremacy with Edmonton, situated on the north shore of the North Saskatchewan River. In the five years it was a city-between 1907 and 1912-Strathcona experienced dramatic commercial growth. However, after it amalgamated with Edmonton in 1912, business favoured the northern bank of the river, and Strathcona declined. Not until the 1960s was the legacy of historic commercial, civic, and residential buildings rediscovered and efforts begun to reclaim the community's heritage.

Locals and visitors alike enjoy Old Strathcona on a sunny day.

For 30 years, the Old Strathcona Foundation (OSF) has raised funds and directed projects to restore buildings and revitalize this community. With assistance from various government jurisdictions, including $100,000/yr for the last decade from the City, the foundation drove the improvements and spurred community groups and property and business owners to participate.

As a result, Strathcona not only became Edmonton's people place, but also its grassroots cultural area. Indeed, for Shirley Lowe, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association (OSBA), Strathcona supplanted Edmonton's downtown.

"When I go to the market on Saturday I meet more people than I do in my neighbourhood," says Lowe. In many ways the Old Strathcona market hearkens back to a regular small-town scene. The aisles are thick with a motley assortment of people, jostling for position at their favourite fruit and vegetable stands, chatting with friends, munching on baking or fruit samples. With market purchases in hand, they walk a block to Whyte Avenue, stop for a leisurely coffee, then extend their shopping to a book, fashion, gift, or sporting goods store.

Whyte Ave is the bustling heart of Strathcona. It has the retail mix people want and attractive, restored buildings of a scale people can relate to. Community residents can find just about any service they need. Accountants, car servicing, banks, churches, health-related shops, and medical professionals are interspersed with clothing, book, and music stores. Visitors can choose from over 80 restaurants and coffee shops, and 25 pubs. Seven theatres run regular seasons, not including the mammoth Fringe Festival, and two movie theatres offer Hollywood-alternative flicks.

Before the refurbishment of heritage buildings on the north side of Whyte Avenue, in the 1980s.

Strathcona circa 1973? Picture urban blight. A handful of worn Edwardian buildings had escaped zealous developers. A few neighbourhood businesses struggled to survive, notably Chapman's clothing and Shragge's dry goods. Many had lost their customers to malls, explains P.J. Duggan, to be "replaced by businesses that catered to alcoholics." Duggan, now superintendent of the Edmonton Police Service, was then the lone cop on the Strathcona beat. He recalls the secondhand shops, Tracy Starr's strip joint, and the Princess theatre, then a porn house.

Fast forward to 1985. A number of buildings had received municipal designation as historic buildings. A handful had a similar federal or provincial designation. The exteriors of many had been renovated either to reveal or reflect their original facades. Warm brick and welcoming windows and signage greeted the increasing number of visitors. The streetscape was redesigned, incorporating trees, brick sidewalks, lighting, and garbage containers with an early 1900s look. Young families started to move into the neighbourhood, attracted by the schools, a library, and the small-town neighbourliness. A big brick community hall was built. With the city's help, theatres and a jazz club put down roots when they were granted long-term leases to city-owned properties. Two popular parades a year and the Fringe theatre festival (now the largest in North America) became major tourist attractions.

The Old Strathcona market became a fixture, drawing buyers from beyond the immediate community. The Princess theatre, a repertory film house, showed not only international hits, but Canadian flicks rarely shown elsewhere. Sidewalk cafes appeared after the OSF won a hard-fought battle with city council. Recognizing the potential of the area, designers and artists rented the small store fronts, attracting customers from all over the city.

After the refurbishment of heritage buildings on the north side of Whyte Avenue, in the 1980s.

The big, bad bars were replaced by smaller, more upscale drinking establishments. The City of Edmonton, after 12 years of providing most of the funding for the area's redevelopment, began to reap its reward. Business was booming, rents were rising, and property and business taxes were keeping pace. Millions of dollars in taxes per year fed the city.

"I was so proud of Old Strathcona. You could go down in the morning and see seniors meeting for tea. Then the suits would arrive from downtown for lunch. The same guys would be back in the evenings with their wives. It was the only place where a parent and child could run into each other on the street, out in the same area yet enjoying their own things," says Wilf Brooks, owner of United Cycle and other Strathcona properties.

Fast forward again, to 2001. On Whyte Ave, as the day wanes, the high-school set strolls the sidewalks. Strathcona is an inexpensive place to hang and tread the boards of music and coffee shops. Towards evening on an average weekend, teenagers pack the walks. The 30-somethings are not in evidence, neither are those who frequented the market and spent the day window shopping. On busy nights, when the bars close at 2 a.m., they spew out up to 10,000 patrons.

Whyte Ave has become the strip. This is not quite what volunteers on the community associations had in mind when they laboured over their community revitalization and redevelopment plans.

Canada Day 2001, Strathcona put on its famous annual Silly Summer Parade, featuring local businesses. The festive atmosphere brought 10,000 people to the avenue to enjoy the event, says Berghofer. In the small hours of the following morning, nearly the same number of people again descended on the avenue. Only this time it was a drunken mob, vandalizing property and assaulting police officers who intervened. The story goes that the rabble-rousers drinking at a beer tent across the river made Strathcona their destination when the tent closed. The riot shattered the image Strathcona supporters had nurtured for so long. "It took us 27 years to build our reputation; it took those morons two hours to trash it," Judy Berghofer alleges.

September 4, 1912, Governor-General, the Duke of Connaught leads a parade down Whyte Avenue.

Though certainly the most newsworthy, it was not the first unpleasant incident Strathcona had experienced. Regular crowds, panhandling, rough-housing, and aggressive behaviour had already begun to tarnish Strathcona's image. The Canada Day events cost merchants in repairs and insurance and underscored the dilemma now facing the community: Strathcona simply does not have tools to deal with crowds and massive influxes of party-goers now regularly attracted to the area.

Community leaders agree that if Strathcona is to remain an attractive place to live and work, the area has to be recognized as a unique community, and the city must provide funding and services to address its specific needs. "We need management," Lowe emphasizes. "The use of the area has increased substantially, but there has always been a reluctance by the city to put more funds in."

In Duggan's opinion, the city's responsibilities are clear. "You can't put in enhanced infrastructure and only provide the same level of maintenance you provide to all other areas of the city. You can't create an area with pedestrian volumes so great it is truly no longer a convenience to residents of the immediate neighbourhoods but rather a recreation and entertainment area for the entire region" When it comes to this, the area needs more policing and city services to maintain people's safety and comfort. Duggan knows from his early days in Strathcona that allowing graffiti, garbage, and disrepair to go unattended will attract people who are attracted to disorder.

Michael Phair, city councillor, has noted the concerns expressed by his Strathcona constituents. "Residents close to Whyte Ave say that in the last four or five years things have gotten difficult. They are concerned about their safety and general disturbance, and parking."

Some object to the influx of teens, citing their drunk and aggressive behaviour that dissuades many from visiting the area after dark. There's also the fear that more businesses catering to the younger age group will open, squeezing out merchants carrying merchandise for a different set of tastes.

But Phair thinks Strathcona "is a good place for kids to hang out. There are a number of things suitable for young people that they find interesting-clothing and record stores, coffee shops, bead stores. Most are enjoying themselves for very little money" Murray suggests that the different daytime and night time uses reflect the variety of people in the area having a good time. "Young people have to be accommodated, and we have to do whatever we can to manage their behaviour so that people and property are not at risk."

To most people, managing kids' behaviour means controlling the number of bars or bar occupancy levels in the area, and strict enforcement of laws relating to alcohol sale and use. In the last ten years, the number of bar spaces in a five-block area on Whyte Ave has increased dramatically from 1,200 bar stools, a number Duggan suggests is "appropriate for a retail shopping and recreation area focused on the arts" Now at 12,000, the number is "appropriate for nothing, anywhere," he says.

Agreement is unanimous that action needs to be taken to curb the number of bars and their occupancy levels. Berghofer wants the police "to come down hard. We want city council to tighten licenses and pull licenses of those that over-serve." Phair points to the city's freeze on bar permits until January 2002 and its increased policing and cleaning of streets and sidewalks. Meanwhile the business association is working with bar owners and the police on a number of initiatives to improve bar owners' and staff relations with the community.

Duggan doubts such steps will curb inappropriate behaviour. "Quite frankly, if the city persists in only allowing zoning tools to regulate an area, it's guaranteed we'll see an increase in disorder, public drunkenness, and violence." In that case it's conceivable that Strathcona could end up the drag area it once was, "but with nicer infrastructure." Duggan also faults the media for hurting the area. "You can't ignore the fact that negative media has been a significant factor in creating the perception of the area as a place to go to be inappropriate," he sighs.

Even if the policing and maintenance issues are resolved, new developments continue to threaten Strathcona. Among community supporters there's consensus that relying on the present system of granting development permits is not enough to protect the diversity-the mix of shops, restaurants, people and events-that is so attractive.

While the foundation and business association agree that ways have to be found to keep peace on the avenue, they also recognize that finding some way to save the merchant mix is ultimately as important.

"Whyte Ave's success depends on a mix of young entrepreneurial merchants who can afford space where they can experiment with some product they're passionate about," Duggan believes. Ensuring these people represent the majority of businesses in the area is essential, he suggests, because they will want to work for the best interests of the community. Unfortunately, the current rents of $23 to $25 a square foot will keep them out.

Long-time property owner and retailer Wilf Brooks and his family have come to see the wisdom of keeping the mix. Once opposed to the OSF's efforts, Brooks is now an active supporter, so much so that when the Brooks family decided to sell some of their Strathcona retail property, they refused to sell to anyone who intended to lease it for anything other than a retail business.

Communities must plan their future, says Brooks "to keep them vibrant." He participated in the development of Strathcona's area revitalization plan (ARP), and is repeating the exercise in another Edmonton community today. Brooks states emphatically that if you don't create a plan, then property values suffer.

Strathcona's current ARP protects heritage elements of the community, focusing on preserving the historical elements, building style, and way of life in the area. It includes design guidelines, building height, setback restrictions, parking requirements, governance of traffic, and transportation routes. Michael Phair explains that "the area redevelopment plan is there to guide members of city council. In general most members are hesitant to do things contrary to the plan."

Berghofer has experienced otherwise. "You have to be tenacious in fighting council to uphold plans," she says, referring to the ARPs. "Some councilors do not support ARPs. All over the city they are being written off." Duggan is skeptical that the plan is enough to protect the area as a whole. He is concerned that retailers' interests have begun to take precedence over community well-being. "The merchants' group has only part of the vision and doesn't represent historical interests, residents, or arts groups in any meaningful way."

No one disputes that change in a community is inevitable, even desirable. But how much is enough, and what is the cost? Perhaps it's time to find a way to provide long-term protection of Strathcona's distinctive characteristics. Robert Geldart, a heritage planner with the City of Edmonton, supports this view. Currently he is looking at opportunities to enshrine the historic nature of the community in perpetuity.

"It's my personal wish to have Old Strathcona designated under the provincial Historical Resources Act as a Municipal Historic Area." Under the Act, a city bylaw would be created specific to the community. "Criteria would be in place to protect a lot of the area from going beyond its character. It wouldn't discourage new development, but would look closely at all development, not wanting it to replicate the past but be sensitive to the area."

Geldart's plan may offer hope to those who feel Old Strathcona lost some appeal in its latest incarnation, but achieving permanent status to protect the community is a lengthy and complex procedure.

Meanwhile the city has appointed a full-time Whyte Avenue coordinator to work with stakeholder groups and city departments on responses to issues affecting the area. Today Old Strathcona is still healthy, fascinating, and invigorating. But the question remains unanswered: how will the people who care about it ensure it stays that way?*

Juliet Kershaw is a writer and editor, living in Old Strathcona.

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